There’s no escaping it. Every country makes some kind of propaganda movie especially during wartime. We may look at these movies more cynically with the benefit of hindsight but if you take a moment to step back to those dark times and consider the position of civilians who had loved ones fighting far away in the field. They didn’t want to see the brutal reality of what their loved ones were going through. They wanted to see them living it up in between daring escapades if only to give them a reprieve from worrying for an hour or two.
This movie falls well in to that category and is one of the few Japanese propaganda movies to have survived in to the 21st century. It tells the story (albeit loosely) of Colonel Tateo Katō, a Japanese ace of the early war period as he leads his men in to combat for the first time in their new mount, the Nakajima Ki-43 Hayabusa (Peregrine Falcon); the title actually translates in to “Kato’s Peregrine Falcon Squadron”. Katō’s real story is a fascinating one and I would recommend anyone with an interest in military history to research him on the internet. Despite all his skill in the air he was killed in a fluke by a gunner aboard a Bristol Blenheim in May 1942. His heroism and attractive physical attributes made him an ideal tool for the Japanese propaganda machine who commissioned this movie less than two years later.
Let’s be clear on something; this is not a biopic of Katō’s life and death. The movie is more about honour, duty and selflessness – essentially all the things the Japanese leadership wanted from it’s people as the noose around Japan’s neck tightened. The characters rarely display any other attributes and when they aren’t in the air annihilating the Allies they are fooling around on the ground or giving grandiose speeches about what it means to serve the Japanese Empire.
I can put up with all this (although being a patriotic Brit seeing the Union Jack desecrated was a bit hard to swallow) but what I found unsettling shall we say is how the pilots treat women in the few scenes where there is one. There is an early scene with a Chinese servant where Katō asks if she understands what he is saying and it feels downright threatening. In a later scene concerning a woman who only works at the base as a maid, the pilots are disappointed hinting that they hoped she was one of the notorious “comfort women”. Anyone who knows more than the average person when it comes to the war in the Pacifc knows just how brutal the Japanese were especially to women who were raped and murdered on a whim by Japanese soldiers without punishment. On the contrary it was expected of them to “dominate” their defeated foes. It was this more than anything that left a bitter taste with me and I can’t dismiss it. Don’t get me wrong here I am not being biased. I watch the film Zulu and while I thoroughly enjoy it my sympathies are actually with the Zulu warriors who at the end of the day were defending their homeland.
Moving on to something more positive, the production values of this movie are exceptionally high even compared to Hollywood propaganda movies of the day. Stunning footage of actual Japanese warplanes are intermixed with painstakingly recreated models to produce some rather epic dogfight sequences. Of particular note is a scene involving an RAF Brewster Buffalo in a very low level dogfight. Quite amusingly, the RAF pilot is animated(!) because they obviously didn’t have any Caucasian actors for the role. Just as fascinating is the fact they used a captured Brewster Buffalo and P-40 Tomahawk for a ground scene where a few engineers are looking them over.
A fascinating movie that is probably tainted by my own views of the war but well worth a try.